Balkan states are strengthening security measures and adopting new sanctions to control the movement of their citizens fighting in Syria.
By Linda Karadaku for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 13/12/13
Authorities and experts in the region are concerned about the increased number of Balkan volunteers fighting on the side of the rebels in Syria. [AFP]
The European Union is growing increasingly concerned about Islamic extremists from the region who joined the fighting in Syria and are now returning home, bringing a more radicalised and dangerous element into Europe.
"The phenomenon is particularly worrying," French Interior Minister Manuel Valls told The Associated Press.
The office of the EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator Gilles de Kerchove delivered a note to the EU ministers last week, asking for "better use of airline passenger information available to security officials to keep track of when and how rebels move to Syria" and a series of other measures including a "crackdown legally on recruitment networks," co-operation with third countries including Turkey and monitoring of internet activities.
The EU ministers have agreed on the need for "a more integrated approach on information exchange, as well as the detection and pursuit of jihadist movements" and appealed for a "rapid adoption of a new European strategy to fight radicalism."
The union sees the situation as a major security threat.
"They are not some romantic freedom fighters," Britain's counter-terrorism chief Helen Ball said.
About 2,000 fighters from Europe are believed to be fighting in Syria with the rebel forces, an increase since the spring, when estimates placed the number at 600 to 800. About 500 fighters from Balkan countries, "highlighting the contribution from small nations like Bosnia and Kosovo," are believed to be involved, according to the EU official quoted by the AP.
The official noted that there were "80 to 100" fighters from Kosovo. Speaking to SETimes, Kosovo police confirmed that some Kosovo citizens are involved in the fighting in Syria, but officials said this number is "small."
On December 4th, Kosovo media reported that police at Pristina's airport detained a Kosovo Albanian fighter returning from Syria, who arrived from Turkey. Kosovo police have not confirmed or denied the detention. Specialists are analysing possible risks to the security of the country, closely co-operating with the prosecutor's office for the further steps.
"There is information for some returns," Kosovo police said in a statement for SETimes. "The fact that some people from Kosovo have been involved in the fighting in Syria represents concern that danger might increase because these volunteers can bring back to Kosovo as well these elements or this spirit."
However, Kosovo police assessed that the state does not presently face a high-level danger of terrorism, although "Kosovo is not immune [to it], as any other state."
Kosovo legislation has no sanctions for citizens who are involved in armed conflicts outside the country, however, as Seb Bytyci, executive director of the Balkan Policy Institute in Pristina noted, some states have considered arresting those who have gone to fight in Syria.
"Something like that can be done … or a new law can be drafted," Bytyci told SETimes.
On December 5th, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) approved amendments to its criminal code that prohibit the departure of BiH citizens to foreign battlefields. The amendment proposed by Minister of Security Fahrudin Radoncic, foresees prison sentences for all those who organise, recruit, promote or directly participate in armed conflicts outside BiH.
According to BiH's Secret Service Agency, about 350 BiH citizens are currently fighting in Syria.
According to the amendment, those who recruit fighters and organise their movement from BiH to foreign battlefields will receive the highest punishment -- 10 years in prison, while the fighters themselves can get a minimum three years in prison after they come back to the country.
"I fully support this amendment," Mehmed Bradaric, a member of BiH's Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Security told SETimes. "Those people represent danger for their families first of all and then danger for the entire society. There are law enforcements in BiH which will bring those people to justice. We shouldn't deal with this from next month, like in all other things, but right now, today."
Authorities in the neighbouring Serbia are also proposing legal measures to sanction their citizens fighting in Syria. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic advocated the idea of criminalising both the fighter recruiting process, as well as organisation of their departure to Syria.
"Five-year prison sentences should be sanctioned for the organisers and three-year sentences to those who go," Ljajic told SETimes.
"We have to anticipate the returns [of fighters from Syria], the ways to handle this, the prevention measures and especially the exchange of information on the travels," Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet told the AP.
EU interior ministers are looking to co-operate closer with Syria's neighbour Turkey to assist "in improving controls at borders and airports" and to do more "to help in preventing radicalisation of individuals, especially in refugee camps."
The Turkish daily Radikal has reported that hundreds of Turkish youths have fought in Syria, both for extremist opposition factions including al-Qaeda and the regime. They are typically young men, many of them from the provinces of Adiyaman, Bingol, Batman, and Diyarbakir.
Human Rights Watch has called upon Turkey to step up patrols to prevent cross-border movement by armed groups.
"Given that most foreign fighters in these [extremist] groups reportedly gain access to Syria via Turkey, from which they also smuggle their weapons, obtain money and other supplies, and retreat to for medical treatment, Turkey should increase border patrols, restrict entry of fighters and arm flows to groups credibly found to be implicated in systematic human rights violations," the monitoring group said in a recent report.
Turkish officials, who have opposed the Syrian regime, have strongly objected to any suggestion that they have co-operated with extremist groups entering Syria. Turkey hosts more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, including more than 200,000 located in refugee camps.
"We have constantly asserted this -- myself, our distinguished prime minister, and our responsible institutions. Turkey has no relationship with any radical group in Syria, especially al-Nusra," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said recently. "This is dirty propaganda advanced by those who want to overshadow Turkey's humanitarian policies."
Analysts in the region agree that EU member countries have legitimate concerns about the many volunteers from Europe and the Balkan countries who fight on the side of the rebels.
"The so-called rebels are closely connected, that is, in coalition with many terroristic groups, primarily Al-Qaeda," Vladimir Pivovarov, professor at Skopje FON University told SETimes. "Their motives to leave to Syria are different. However, even if they are not members of some terroristic group, there they will easily be co-opted in the same. This means the easiest opportunity for the terroristic organisations to enforce the network on European ground."
Abit Hoxha, Kosovo senior security researcher of the Centre for Security Studies, agreed.
"I believe the EU concern is right as the people involved in any conflict are a challenge for the system in situations after the end of the conflict," Hoxha told SETimes.
Hoxha said social, economic and education assistance and the establishment of better partnerships with religious communities could help to control the export of violence from Syria to the EU.
Experts said that all countries in the region should sanction such inclusion in foreign military clashes, pursuant to the criminal laws where participation in foreign militaries and military actions is prohibited.
"Preventively, the intelligence services should establish close co-operation and exchange of intelligence information in order to prevent the future candidates from leaving to Syria, and for the ones who have left, they should undertake operational control measures for the same, because the same are already a problem in their own yard," Pivovarov said.
Bytyci said it would be helpful to run a public awareness campaign to inform people about the Syria conflict and the role of the foreign fighters.
Correspondents Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo, Bojana Milovanovic in Belgrade and Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.
What are the most effective measures the region should take to prevent the flow of local citizens to Syria and to control the activity of fighters who return to their home countries? Share your thoughts in comments section.